It was the 1980s and Ronald “Ron” Jordan had an inkling that something was rotten about opportunities available to attorneys of color, Blacks in particular. “Something was just not fair. It didn’t seem normal,” he recalled almost four decades later in my office at The Network Journal.
Brow knit, Jordan seemed as perplexed as he must have been when he discovered another “normal.” He was a scion of the 1960s in a Berkeley, California, steeped in civil rights, free speech and anti-Vietnam War activism that spilled out from the local University of California campus, his alma mater. “Normal” meant all were equal in the eyes of opportunity. “The relationships that I grew up with were multicultural. Berkeley High School was this hodgepodge of integration. We listened to Marvin Gaye records. Motown was hot. We all played football in ninth grade and I swam. Jordan was almost wistful,
There weren’t any stereotypes about Blacks. I could be a lifeguard and get paid fifteen bucks an hour back in the day.”
Two years as a recruiter at a California search firm exposed the “normal” that shaped what has become his mission. He recounted the plight of Filipino-American accountants who, although trained in the Philippines at Arthur Andersen, “the best CPA firm in the world,” after graduating from an institution that Arthur Andersen counted among the best for accounting, were relegated to positions as accounting clerks, payroll clerks and assistant comptrollers when they arrived in San Francisco because employers “discounted” their expertise. “As I got older, there were certain things that stayed with me. Maybe they were idealistic. But when it came to the law, which I saw as a propellant to a better society, the very people that are the historical basis of what we have today were not given equal opportunity to ply what I call their intellectual property, their minds. It didn’t make sense to me,” Jordan told TNJ.
His mentor in the law was William “Bill” H. Hastie, son of the first African-American appointed to the federal bench. “When I met him it was a blessing because he gave me all that history that I have come to know by rote. He had beaten it into my head,” Jordan said. He reeled off the names of barrier-breaking, civil rights activist attorneys who formed the NAACP Legal Education and Defense Fund, precursor to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; argued the landmark desegregation case, Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas; and laid the groundwork for anti-discrimination and fail-labor policies such as the Civil Rights Act and the Housing Act. They included U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman appointed to the federal judiciary;
Judge Robert L. Carter; Theodore M. Shaw; Elaine R. Jones; Oliver White Hill; William T. Coleman Jr.; and Jack Greenberg. Jordan spoke, too, of the Black families with generations of trailblazing lawyers, such as the Hasties and the Colemans. “People like that — all very educated, grew up in a segregationist society, might have been Republicans as mostly was the case during that time — they found a cause to give equal access to education. But they had to do it through the law, which became policy,” he observed.
He saw the same activism in South Africa, noting that everyone who stood against apartheid with Nelson Mandela in his prison on Robben Island became a lawyer because they saw the law as the one way to break prejudice, bigotry and conscious, unconscious, implicit and institutional bias. “Some people get excited about meeting [jazz saxophonists] John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders. My heroes and sheroes are lawyers because of their historical significance, but also because of the family histories and what they’ve done for Black people and all people of color,” he declared.
History drove Jordan to action. “The one thing that I thought I could do was take this booming voice and this laughter of mine and carry that talent to places where people didn’t think that it existed, where the Thurgood Marshalls and Carters were considered an aberration,” he said.
“It seems a travesty to have this untapped pool of intellectual property, skills, attitude, ethics and hard work, and, really more than anything, the moral compass that comes with being an officer of the court — that your intellectual property that you’ve honed with your family’s support and your hard work that you apply to the law cannot be utilized to gain fame or fortune.”
Today, Jordan is the founder and chairman of Carter-White & Shaw LLC, one of the country’s few Black- owned-and-operated legal search firms. The name draws on branches in his mother’s family tree. “I place Black attorneys. And if you want to make it more universal, I will place Blacks of African descent in law firms and corporate legal departments,” he stated. “That’s not to discount diverse attorneys of color or sexual orientation. I just don’t find jobs for white people. My job is to help people of color, and primarily Black attorneys. That’s where I see the niche market.”
The niche proved lucrative, but simply making a living could not satisfy Jordan as he evolved emotionally and morally. “It’s a moral obligation, as with any agent of change, to get to that point where money is not the end-all. If you do this for the right reasons you’ll make a living, even a substantial living. But going to sleep every night and waking up energized every day means that you did something for the right reasons.”
In the 26 years since he established Carter-White & Shaw, Jordan has placed 100 to 150 attorneys, the bulk of them on the East Coast, where he found “the talent pool to make the vision work.” His East Coast clients include Reed Smith LLP, an elite global firm whose latest diversity report shows 16 African-American partners in 2016 and six new African-American hires, five of them women, the same year. Reed Smith also reported that its senior management plays an integral role in communicating the importance of diversity at the firm; all attorneys, including the firm’s Diversity Committee and management, are evaluated annually on their contributions to diversity and inclusion; and that management reviews the firm’s diversity progress every quarter. All of this demonstrated the “nontoxic environment” that Jordan likes to see before he places attorneys. “It’s one thing to take little Black heads and butts and put them in seats, but the hallmark of a law firm that is committed to hiring diverse attorneys of color, especially African-Americans or Blacks of African descent, is retention,” he said.
Trust and access to the top are important to Jordan. He explained: “Based on trust, Reed Smith asked me to come to a partners retreat for one reason: to get to know the partners that were not partners of color in a social situation. That’s rare. And then they invited me back to their diversity summit. It is very, very seldom that any legal recruiter, especially one as small as we are, has access to the global partner — the chairman — of a firm to talk about this issue. I met him at the partners retreat, I met him at the diversity summit, I met him at the reception, and we talked on the phone.”
Generally, Jordan is optimistic.
“People are starting to get it. The sad thing is, it’s taken a quarter of a century.
I was thirty-five years old when I started this business. For twenty-six years of my life I’ve been beating this drum about diverse attorneys of color and the talent pool that law firms have been missing,” he said. The law business itself is changing as the industry creeps toward greater diversity, he noted. Artificial intelligence will take on rote tasks such as e-discovery and depositions, for example.
“But when it comes to practicing law, it’s the humanistic quality that makes it so special. That’s why I like it,” Jordan said. “In any profession you want to feel at the end of the day that you’ve got some fulfillment out of what you did because you helped to change something. As a Black person, as a person of color, you want to feel that you’ve changed something for the better. That’s what keeps me going.”